It’s no secret that interactions between adults and kids can tend to feel strained at times. It doesn’t matter if you are a teacher, administrator, coach, parent, or caregiver… There's just a natural tension constantly at work between the world of adults and children. An adult will and a child counter will.
We see this in infants when it’s time to sleep.
We see this with toddlers at parks when it is time to leave.
We see it in elementary classrooms when it’s time to switch from art to math.
We see it in the tween’s rolling eyes and scoffs during soccer practice.
And eventually, we see it in our curfew-breaking, class-skipping teenagers. This push and push back is ever-present for parents and teachers who are trying to support children in their journey of growing. It’s dealing with this disagreement about how things should be and what is necessary or “good” that seems to cause the vast majority of contention in families, schools, teams, and other adult-child relationships.
As parents and teachers, what we want from the children we interact with seems relatively simple. We want kids who say, “Okay, Mom,” and, “Yes, Mrs. Jonson.” We want kids to be “good” (usually meaning quiet), to perform well on tests, and to do their chores.
Typically, in trying to achieve the results (many of which have been predetermined by ourselves, social norms, or other adults) we are looking for from our kids, we resort to a variety of techniques and strategies. If these techniques end in compliance, they are seen as “good” because they have given us what we wanted: submission to the adult’s plan. (Yes, that may sound dramatic, but let’s continue.)
Now, in the vast number of cases, the parent or teacher’s intention/plan/schedule is truly in the best interest — or intended to be in the best interest — of the child’s future self. We are, in fact, trying to develop strong and successful children. Hence, we tend to believe that the ends justify the means, and we’ll tolerate the discord that pushing, pulling, bribing, or punishing typically results in.
We want our kids to be happy, kind, optimistic, hard-working, intelligent, hopeful, empathetic, capable, independent, creative, and honest. We want to support children to be the absolute best they can be. However, we are seeing more and more of the youth population heavily affected by bullying, high illiteracy rates, alarmingly low academic proficiency rates, and rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide.
According to the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, in a survey of 21,678 high school students, 75% of them used negative words to describe their current school experience. We see these emotional downfalls mirrored in our own data with incoming 3rd-8th grade Prenda students, who most commonly use words like “stressful,” “scary,” or “boring” to describe their previous schooling experience.
Given the facts, as parents and teachers, we need to start wondering if perhaps some of the methods, attitudes, and systems we are using with the children in our lives may not actually be achieving those “good” results we hope for. We need to ponder other, more beneficial ways to support children with growing and developing into good humans.
While the statistics may be sobering, the great news is that a massive body of research has been accumulating over the last few decades that shows where these issues stem from and what we can do to prevent them. The solutions are inexpensive and straightforward, but they aren’t quick band aid fixes we can use to heal our youth. It will take deep learning and soul-stretching from all of us to reevaluate our core beliefs and change some long-standing societal habits.
Now, sifting through decades of psychological, educational, and neurological research probably seems incredibly overwhelming. Don’t worry; we’ve got you covered.
Here at Prenda, we have been studying these trends and the potential solutions for years, and we’ve found a handful of concepts and approaches that help caring, willing-to-learn parents and teachers create environments where students thrive. In fact, our entire learning experience has been designed to help kids take ownership of their education and become empowered learners.
So without further adieu, here are our top 5 favorite books to help you support the learner in your life.
In this book, Johnson and Stixrud outline the case for giving students more choice and control over their lives.
According to the authors (and 30ish years of research), the way kids are currently “managed” — even by the most well-intentioned, loving, and attentive parents and teachers in their lives — could lead to some unintentional and surprising repercussions. For example, recent research shows that not allowing young people to make significant, meaningful choices about their own lives might be limiting the development of their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that sets goals, manages behavior, inhibits impulses, and more). Additionally, it could be contributing to the increased levels of anxiety and depression in our youth population.
Johnson and Stixrud walk us through the evidence for these assertions and how we might shift our intentions. Rather than making sure our kids jump through the “right” hoops and check the “right” boxes, we can support children in becoming well-informed individuals who can govern themselves, manage stress, and purposefully progress academically.
This book provides an in-depth look at the research landscape into human motivation.
Author Alfie Kohn helps us see that the typical approaches parents and teachers take in motivating kids often actually end up demotivating them and incentivizing behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that aren’t helpful.
If we ever hope to do more than change short-term, surface behaviors of our kiddos, we must come to a deeper understanding of what really drives kids to do what they do. Once we understand this, we can build homes, teams, classroom environments, and relationships that support our children and their long-term intrinsic motivation.
Greene works to reframe the child-adult relationship as one of respect and mutual collaboration.
It details the why and the how of handling conflict and solving problems as collaborative partners with our kids. We especially love this book because of the profoundly respectful and optimistic portrayal of young humans’ potential and intentions. Sometimes it’s easy to treat our youth in ways that would be wildly inappropriate if applied to another adult. But, since we are used to treating children a certain way, it’s difficult to detect when we are actually being disrespectful.
The author questions our unspoken societal assumptions that kids are lazy, incapable, manipulative, or ill-intentioned. We learn that all productive work with children begins with the belief that they have good intentions even if they don’t possess the skills we might want them to (yet). Our job as parents and teachers raising children is to respond to any communicative attempts with respect and compassion and to support children in every stage of their development.
Authors Neufeld and Maté discuss how society (specifically industrialized North American culture) has moved away from solid adult-to-child relationships in favor of more peer-to-peer connections.
They show that this shift is negatively impacting our youth's mental health and happiness and explain the neurological/biological/psychological underpinnings of why these adult-child attachments are so crucial for our children’s education and overall well-being. While we are not saying you should coddle or “bubble-wrap” your children, research presented in this book shows that it is the very act of connecting and attaching to adult caregivers that help kids develop into strong and independent people.
Neufeld and Maté also explain how to nurture and support strong attachment bonds and the good this does for the developing brain (infants-adolescents). Establishing something called “psychological safety” is a precursor to natural growth and learning, and this book helps us understand what’s going on in the child’s brain, what they need to thrive, and how we can be the solution.
While this isn’t a “parenting” book or an “education” book, per se, it does help us, as adults, understand and process how we can lay the foundation for guiding children down a path of mental and emotional stability.
It is common to hear school administrators and teachers talking about implementing “social-emotional learning” programs, and that’s a step in the right direction. However, as Brackett illustrates, if we aren’t socially and emotionally well ourselves, odds are slim to none that we will be able to exemplify and teach this to our students and children.
As we become “emotion scientists” who can observe, validate, metabolize, and learn from our own emotions, we will be able to support children in developing emotional processing skills that can lead to all sorts of positive outcomes for the short and long term.
It is up to each of us to devote time to learning, growing, and evolving in a way that will be beneficial not only for the children we interact with, but for the children who follow them, and so on.
Though the habits and routines that we have developed and utilized may be difficult to mend and reshape, it is not an impossible task. Even by reading this article, you are making progress!
Make it a goal to read one of these books each month or two, and allow yourself to open up to their knowledge. We assure you, you'll learn something new that will help you support the children in your life.